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The Pacific Ring: Sustaining quality of life in the face of economic progress

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The Pacific Ring: Sustaining quality of life in the face of economic progress

“It’s engineering. It’s economics. It’s policy and it involves community,” Kate Trauth summarized when asked about the Pacific Ring Initiative she and her students are investigating.

Trauth, an associate professor in the University of Missouri College of Engineering’s Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, was referring to an Environmental Protection Agency-supported project she was awarded to promote water quality in the face of development in the town of Pacific, Mo., and the surrounding area. The small community located at the base of beautiful, towering St. Peter sandstone bluffs, lies 30 miles southwest of St. Louis and is in the direct path to experience some of that city’s growing pains and the associated potential impact to its health and well-being.

In June, the U.S. Census released figures that estimate Pacific has grown 30.6 percent since the results of the 2000 census were tabulated. That makes the cozy little Missouri town nestled next to the Meremac River and the Shaw Nature Reserve the tenth fastest growing city in the St. Louis Metropolitan area.

Such growth can be a blessing to a small community like Pacific, given the economic boost that new jobs and increased tax revenues can generate. However, with a proactive eye to the impact that unplanned growth may have on property values, cultural interests, political issues, and environmental concerns, city residents have gathered together to work toward ensuring that they can sustain their quality of life and perhaps become a national model in doing so.

The Pacific Ring project, which includes the countryside in a seven-mile radius around the city, is an initiative of the nonprofit Magi Foundation Inc., a corporation formed by past University of Missouri Board of Curators President James McHugh, and some of his colleagues. The foundation’s role in the project has been to bring university researchers and policy groups together with residents to facilitate sustainable development.

McHugh’s interest in Pacific is personal. In 1908, his ancestors built what was then Pacific’s largest building, the three-story McHugh–Dailey Mercantile building, constructed from materials salvaged from dismantled 1904 World’s Fair structures. Today the renovated building’s first floor houses The Great Pacific Coffee Company where Pacific Ring public meetings are held.

Trauth first learned about the Pacific Ring Initiative when she met McHugh in 2004. When EPA issued a request for research proposals later that year, Trauth and Dr. Tom Johnson, a professor with joint appointments in agricultural economics and the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs, and the director of MU’s Community Policy Analysis Center, immediately responded.

The proposal was funded under the title, “GIS Land Cover and Economic Analysis Tool to Promote Water Quality Protection for Sustainable Development.”  The scope of the work is to develop tools to inform community decisions on land development taking water quality into consideration. The proposal also aims to focus positive attention on the economic benefits of adhering to practices that preserve water quality. Though work continues, Trauth’s students have completed a land survey and several other components.

The water quality considerations of the project focus on non-point source pollutants, those pollutants that are generated from land surfaces in a watershed and introduced into a stream from storm water runoff. These pollutants account for much of today’s water quality problems, even as communities and industries are required to control their discharges that reach streams via pipes. Included are sediment, pesticides, fertilizers, and pollutants associated with urbanization including those generated from construction. Also included is runoff from areas given over to roads, parking lots and rooftops. Termed impervious, these surfaces no longer absorb the rainfall they did as natural areas. Roads and parking lots additionally are coated with petroleum products and heavy metals that can wash into storm water.
Within the seven-mile radius of the Pacific Ring is the near-pristine LaBarque Creek watershed, a perfect place to lay the groundwork for the water quality impact portion of the project.
Melissa Hanna was an undergraduate civil and environmental engineering student at the time the work began. “I was interested in working in hydrology,” said Hanna of her connection to the project, “and I asked Dr. Trauth about it.”

“My part in the project involved looking at how you could use geographic information system (GIS) applications to see how wide effective stream buffers would need to be in the face of urbanization,” Hanna explained.

A successful stream buffer of plants and permeable land will help keep pollutants from entering a stream, will slow down sediment, and soak up excess nutrients. More urbanization often requires a larger buffer. The idea is to make development a partner in sustainability, providing the maximum amount of land for development, but leaving a large enough buffer to sustain water quality.
Using GIS technology, graduate civil and environmental engineering students Aslan Aslan, who prior to attending MU worked as a GIS specialist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Janggam Adhityawarma, went out to public areas in Pacific and collected field data regarding the land cover in identifiable locations.

“I am responsible for the land cover map, derived from high-resolution satellite imagery,” said Aslan. “Using the global positioning system (GPS) coordinates from ground locations, we could compare exactly what was on the ground to landcover classifications and reanalyze the data to make sure that the map was right.” For this project, the students had to either receive permission to enter private property or had to remain in public access areas. “We had to respect land owners’ rights,” Aslan said about the data collection effort for LaBarque and Brush Creeks he and Adhityawarma conducted.
GIS allows for the analysis of several overlaid layers of images and other data. Hanna looked at land cover from satellite images, as well as a digital elevation model that showed topography, and a soil-type map to predict how much storm water runoff could be absorbed by a given stream buffer.

“I looked at a small section of a stream, about 300 feet — with vast amounts of information — to develop a set of steps that anyone could use in an area for a buffer performance assessment,” said Hanna. “Land use maps helped me to differentiate between forest and grassland, to tell if there would be things like large trees that would soak in rain. Then you can predict what else would need to be added to the buffer if something like a parking lot were to be built nearby because there would be a lot more pollutants.”

Hanna wrote a paper detailing her work that is in review. “It was so interesting. I am really glad that I got the GIS experience,” said Hanna. “I was happy to have the opportunity.”
She believes her work on the project helped her land a job with Lutjen, Inc. in Kansas City upon graduating last year, where she specializes in storm water management.

Aslan is continuing with Hanna’s work on buffers in the LaBarque watershed. “My background is marine science and I have also worked with wildlife habitat conservation. Now I am in civil engineering. As long as you know the GIS technology, you can apply it anywhere.”

Another use for the land cover map is as a data layer for a decision support system that combines biological, cultural and political information layers with more conventional civil engineering-related information. It enables the identification of locations where development would have greater or lesser impact on the overall environment. It is meant to support a collaborative decision-making process between residents and builders and developers. Adhityawarma presented the methodology last summer at the American Society of Civil Engineers Environmental and Water Resources Institute’s World Environmental and Water Resources Congress.

Trauth and Johnson’s work on the Pacific Ring project continues. Ongoing efforts include collecting data about infrastructure and economic aspects of the area, such as property and home values.
“Engineering has so much to offer in the policy arena. We are working to develop methodologies and tools that communities can use as they decide what kind of place they want to be in the future,” said Trauth. “We just want to make sure that they understand the impacts of their decisions, in this case with regard to protecting water quality.”

“But there are other community issues,” continued Trauth, “including economics, which is where the Community Policy Analysis Center comes in with economic modeling and community interactions. You can’t tell people what to do, but you can give them the tools to make informed decisions.”

This semester, freshman civil engineering student Matthew Wheeler, an MU College of Engineering Discovery Fellow, is working with doctoral candidate Adhityawarma and with Aslan, who is working on his master’s degree, to develop a GIS-based process to characterize the impact of land surface, soil and vegetation on the generation of storm water runoff. This data could be used to direct the development of impervious surface limits in locations where the impact of development would be more substantial.

“When we are finished, we will have a set of strategies that any community can use to make informed decisions on development” said Trauth.

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